Vayikra Rabbah 30:12 – Identity vs. Actions

There is an oft-quoted midrash that most people are familiar with about how the four species, one of Sukkot’s most notable mitsvot, correspond to four different types of people found in the nation of Israel. This midrash is often quoted to talk about the value of diversity or how ever Jew has a place within Judaism, ideas that are important, to be sure, but ones that I think miss the power of how the midrash follows up the typology of Israelite-flora correspondences. Below is the text of the midrash and an English translation,[1] after which I will examine some of the neglected lines, without pretending to exhaust the meaning of this midrash.

דבר אחר: פרי עץ הדר, אלו ישראל. מה אתרוג זה, יש בו טעם ויש בו ריח. כך ישראל, יש בהם בני אדם, שיש בהם תורה, ויש בהם מעשים טובים. כפות תמרים, אלו ישראל. מה התמרה הזו, יש בו טעם ואין בו ריח. כך הם ישראל, יש בהם שיש בהם תורה ואין בהם מעשים טובים. וענף עץ עבות, אלו ישראל. מה הדס, יש בו ריח ואין בו טעם.כך ישראל, יש בהם שיש בהם מעשים טובים ואין בהם תורה. וערבי נחל, אלו ישראל. מה ערבה זו, אין בה טעם ואין בה ריח. כך הם ישראל, יש בהם בני אדם שאין בהם לא תורה ולא מעשים טובים. ומה הקב”ה עושה להם? לאבדן אי אפשר, אלא אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא יוקשרו כולם אגודה אחת, והן מכפרין אלו על אלו, ואם עשיתם כך אותה שעה אני מתעלה, הדא הוא דכתיב (עמוס ט): הבונה בשמים מעלותיו. ואימתי הוא מתעלה? כשהן עשויין אגודה אחת, שנאמר (שם): ואגודתו על ארץ יסדה. לפיכך משה מזהיר לישראל: ולקחתם לכם ביום הראשון:

Another explanation: “The fruit of a beautiful tree” – these are [referring to] Israel. Just like this citron (etrog), which has taste and has smell, so too Israel has among them people that have Torah and have good deeds. “The branches of a date palm” – these are [referring to] Israel. Just like this date, which has taste and has no smell, so too Israel has among them those that have Torah but do not have good deeds. “And a branch of a braided tree (a myrtle)” – these are [referring to] Israel. Just like this myrtle, which has smell and has no taste, so too Israel has among them those that have good deeds but do not have Torah. “And brook willows” – these are [referring to] Israel. Just like this willow, which has no smell and has no taste, so too Israel has among them people that have no Torah and have no good deeds. And what does the Holy One, blessed be He, do to them? To destroy them is impossible, but rather the Holy One, blessed be He, said “bind them all together [into] one grouping and these will atone for those.” And if you will have done that, I will be elevated at that time. This is [the meaning of] what is written (Amos 9:6), “He Who built the upper chambers in the heavens” (indicating his elevation). And when is He elevated? When they make one grouping, as it is stated (Ibid.), “and established His grouping on the earth.” Hence Moshe warned Israel, “And you shall take for yourselves on the first day.”

The majority of the text of the midrash is taken up by laying out the correspondences one after the other. After the midrash gets to the last correspondence, however, it does not simply move on.

“And brook willows” – these are [referring to] Israel. Just like this willow, which has no smell and has no taste, so too Israel has among them people that have no Torah and have no good deeds. And what does the Holy One, blessed be He, do to them? To destroy them is impossible, but rather the Holy One, blessed be He, said “bind them all together [into] one grouping and these will atone for those.”

Faced with a category of Jews who do not have any meritorious actions, ritual or ethical, to their name, the midrash asks what God should do with such people. It raises the possibility that they should be destroyed by way of rejecting the possibility, in favor of proposing that national unity can enable “these” to “atone for those.”

The first point of note here is that the midrash is asking what should be done with such people. The question implies that the whole description of the various types of Jews isn’t just an exercise in description, or in midrashic creativity. There is a sense that some sort of Divine judgment[2] is at work, and this group of Jews have no merit that should enable them to survive. Presumably this is working off the way Sukkot comes hot on the heels of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, traditionally understood as a time of Divine judgment and forgiveness.

What’s interesting is that it is inconceivable that God would destroy this section of the Jewish people. Given that fact, God has to then justify their survival, which he does by way prescribing national unity. This national unity does more than simply justify their survival, however; it actually atones for these Jews.[3]

This is an important turn in the midrash. Just a few lines before, these Jews had not a single merit on their side, to the point where their survival of Divine judgment had to be justified by God himself. Now they have been atoned for.[4] They are now worthy to survive in and of themselves.

This leads to a different conception of Divine judgment than what the midrash started out with. The initial standard of evaluation used by the midrash was based on people’s actions, ritual and ethical, and to receive a positive evaluation was to have performed positive ritual or ethical actions. Now, however,  the midrash is suggesting that identity is an important factor in Divine evaluation. A Jew can be deemed meritorious not by virtue of actions they have performed, but by virtue of being part of the Jewish people.

“Being part of the Jewish people” is something of an ambiguous idea. It might just mean identifying as a Jew, without any external actions attached to that. Or it might mean that you have to express this identity in some way, likely in your relationship to your Jews. However, given that the midrash says they Jews don’t have any ethical or ritual actions to their merit, it seems likely that this national unity is just a function of internal identity. We thus emerge from the typological correspondences of the midrash with a standard of evaluation where, in order to survive Divine Judgment, you have to either have performed certain actions, or simply possess the identify as a part of the Jewish nation.

This unity of national identity is articulated not just as an ideal state by which to survive judgment, but as an instruction from God to the Jews to unite in order to make sure even the most marginalized survive judgment. To paraphrase, the Jews who have acted righteously are essentially told, “You want to save the rest of the Jews? Help them feel Jewish.” Importantly, they are not told to help the other Jews perform more mitsvot or to do more good in the world. That would potentially be a solution, moving the Jews of the fourth category, the “willow Jews,” into the previous floral categories But God, according to the midrash, does not take that route; God does not turn to what we typically think of as “kiruv.” It seems to be less important to God, at least for the purposes of the present Divine judgment, that the Jews perform ritual and ethical actions than that they identify as Jewish. The next line of the midrash takes it beyond just the practical needs of the present judgment, however.

And if you will have done that, I will be elevated at that time. This is [the meaning of] what is written (Amos 9:6), “He Who built the upper chambers in the heavens” (indicating his elevation). And when is He elevated? When they make one grouping, as it is stated (Ibid.), “and established His grouping on the earth.”

The unity of the Jews leads to the elevation of God. The identifying of all of the Jews as Jewish, more even than their performance of mitsvot, leads to the elevation of God. This unity is not just a practical move in order to help the Jews survive judgment; it is a goal unto itself. It might be argued that it is the survival of the Jews in judgment that elevates God, but the midrash preempts that argument by using a verse from Amos to explicitly link God’s elevation to Israel’s unity. It is thus the very fact of the Jews’ collective existence and identity that elevates God.

This may serve as an explanation for why God cannot destroy the meritless among the Jewish people. The midrash posits an inherent connection between the elevation of God (whatever that means) and the national body of the Jewish people. So destroying Jews, even just a small part of the larger collective, goes against God’s elevation.

This also leads to a sharp conclusion: It is more important that the Jews exist as a collective group with a shared identity than that Jews should perform specific actions. While this might seem strange to some, it is well grounded in an important idea from Tanakh. This is the idea that God sometimes saves the Israelite nation for the sake of God’s name.[5] God is connected to the bodily existence of the Jewish nation (a relationship of elevation, according to our midrash) so it’s destruction is something God has an active interest in avoiding. Thus even when the Israelites are sinning, to the point where they would merit destruction, God may still avert this destruction for the sake of God’s Name. This midrash can thus be seen as extending this idea to a new and exciting conclusion: it is not just the national collective that God is interested in saving for the sake of God’s name, but also individual Jews, meritorious or not.

 

Hence Moshe warned Israel, “And you shall take for yourselves on the first day.”

The midrash then funnels all of this theological momentum into the mitsvah of of the four species. The mitsvah is a reminder of the importance of Jewish identity. Regardless of the importance of what actions we do or not perform, the essential point is that we identify as part of the Jewish nation.

 

[1] Hebrew text and translation from http://www.sefaria.org/Vayikra_Rabbah.30.12?lang=bi&with=Amos&lang2=en.

[2] Judgment in this article should be understood as shorthand for judgment of the Jews specifically.

[3] Due the the midrash’s use of inherently vague pronouns, it is possible to understand the midrash is suggesting that each type of Jew atones for some lack in all the others, and perhaps even that God has to justify not destroying all of different types of Jews. I find such a reading unlikely and forced, however, but rejecting that specific reading goes beyond the scope of this article.

[4] Notably, “atonement” usually has to do with removal of actual sin rather than a lack of merit. The midrash seems to assume that people who lack merit are inherently sinful, or are for sure also sinning, or something to that effect. Examining this understanding of merit and human nature would be an intriguing topic for a different composition.

[5] I have written about this theme in this essay.

Shoftim 5775 – Two Symbolic Interpretations of a Mitsvah.

Shoftim 5775 – Two Symbolic Interpretations of a Mitsvah.

“Do not erect a sacred stone, for these the LORD your God hates.” ~Devarim 16:22

The prohibition of creating a monument stone, a “matsevah“, is side-by-side with a discussion of the altar, “mizbeah“, that the Israelites are allowed to create (16:21).

Contrasting the two structures enables a few suggestions as to why one might be encouraged and the other forbidden.

  1. A matsevah is a single stone while the mizbeah is built of many stones. Unity is less about being contiguous, about being of a single cloth, then about the unity of disparate elements towards a single purpose, the service of God and the fulfillment of God’s Law.
  1. Being a single stone, the matsevah is essentially a natural object, produced by God. The mizbeah is artificial, coming about only through the strength of human hands (Devarim 8:17-18). Holiness and the service of God have less to do with the innate nature of things and more to do with the importance of human action. God has given us a world and asked us, through his law, to sanctify and to distinguish, to elevate it and make it holy (Vayikra 10:10).

Shavuot 5775 – Unity, Equality, and the Law

Shavuot 5775 – Unity, Equality, and the Law

 

Revelation presents a problem, one that it has been acknowledged, discussed, and struggled over since Plato. In short, if revelation provides information that can be discovered via reason, then revelation is unnecessary. However, if it provides information that contradicts reason, then why should reasonable beings accept it. The two prongs of this discussion have brought forth many answers and responses from within the Jewish tradition.

While not dealing with this problem explicitly, Rambam lays out an approach to the tension between reason and revelation in the Moreh Nevukhim[1]. In discussing various approaches to the origin of the universe (MN 2:25), Rambam says, with some reservation, that the true opinion is the one that is most philosophically compelling, and that were it to contradict the plain sense of verses of the Torah, then those verses would have to be reinterpreted. This flows logically from his belief that the Torah was very limited in what it could discuss due to the primitive and pagan beliefs of the Israelites who left Egypt. Thus the plain sense of the Torah was designed to convey beliefs and truths that could be accepted by the masses, while the wise man (read: the philosopher) would be able to plumb its depths and discover the truth, with a capital “T”. The problem with this approach is that it seems to indicate that the Torah is primarily aimed at the more philosophically inclined, with everyone else being hopelessly doomed to misunderstand the Torah. Only the philosophical elite can truly understand the Torah.

In the third volume of Mikhtav Me’Eliyahu, Rav Eliyahu Dessler tackles a similar discussion. Rav Dessler says that, initially, the Torah was only accessible through the inner-life of man. It was through introspection and developing ethics and spirituality that a person connected to the Torah; this was the path of our forefathers. Then Moshe delivered the Torah from Heaven to Earth. Ever since Sinai, the Torah is accessible in our external, practical, lives. This is because the Torah is now manifest in mitsvot, in commandments that are fulfilled equally no matter who is performing them. While certain people have a natural inclination towards philosophy, spirituality, or introspection, all people are equal before the law.

Returning to the Moreh Nevukhim, it is actually easy to identify this ethos in one of the later chapters (MN 3:34). Discussing the way commandments were given to help with the self-perfection of Man, Rambam confronts the problem of individuality. Given the way people vary, it is inevitable that there will be a person for whom a certain law is not only not helpful, but it actually harmful in terms of their development. To put in terms of the text of the Torah, a person might be developed enough that they do not need the original plain sense of the text, but not so philosophical that they immediately grasp the divine Truth behind it. For this person, the text can only be confusing. So too in the case of the law; even to their detriment, the wise are equal to everyone else when it comes to following the commandments.

The Kuzari presents a similar idea as part of a polemic against the Karaites (3:39). In contrast to the Karaites, for whom each person must understand Torah according to their own intellect interpretive biases, Rabbinic Jews all follow the same tradition of interpretation. This not only serves to create unified practice throughout the entire nation, it also creates unity of practice throughout a person’s life, as they follow the tradition as opposed to their own ever-changing opinion. Not only are all Jews equal before the law, but all Jews share in the same law.

More than Matan Torah (a traditional term meaning the “the giving of the Torah”) was the giving of the law, it was the creation of a national identity through the law. While the nation shared a familial and cultural history, we were not truly united until they received the law at Har Sinai. From then on, we shared an identity based around our connection to the Torah, based on our connection to ‘א through His law. It is this identity that has been our guiding light throughout history[2], keeping us united in times of immense hardship. This Shavuot, let us reaffirm this identity, and let it keep guiding us in our future.

[1] For more on the ideas of this paragraph, see my discussion of the Torah speaking in the language of man here.

[2] This brings to mind Ehad HaAm’s famous statement, “More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.”

Parashat Haye Sarah – A Stranger In A Strange Land

גֵּר-וְתוֹשָׁב אָנֹכִי

Parashat Haye Sarah tells the three stories that conclude Avraham’s section of Sefer Bereishit, consisting of his last two narratives and the story of his burial. The two final narratives of Avraham’s life, burying his wife and finding a wife for his son, would seem at first glance to be in tension. When buying a plot of land to bury Sarah, Avraham is very precise in following the local protocol and accepted norms of the Hittite community in the area, making his case to and before the public (Bereishit 23). Then, when he sends his servant to find a wife for Yitzhak, his instructions make it clear that he wants nothing to do with the locals, that a Canaanite woman would be completely unacceptable as a wife for Yitzhak. However, both stories are at the end of the day more complex than that, and both express a larger tension inherent in Avraham’s life, and throughout the history of Bnei Yisrael.

Bereishit 23 begins with Sarah’s death and ends with her burial. The verses in between are spent in a very detailed depiction of the process of Avraham buying a plot of land in which to bury Sarah. Avraham first goes to the Children of Het as a community and asks them to speak on his behalf. Only then does Avraham actually speak to Efron, and the whole thing takes place in the presence of the community. The whole thing strongly resembles ancient Near-Eastern contracts, down to the mention of the trees in verse 17[1]. The larger story reads very much like a story about Avraham joining the community. However, looking at the details of Avraham’s discussion with the Hittites gives a somewhat different impression. In verse four, Avraham asks the community if he can purchase “a burial plot” in which to bury Sarah, and they respond by offering him a grave, “from amongst the choicest of their graves.” In his response, Avraham asks the people to intercede with Efron on his behalf, and in doing so he again states that he is looking to purchase not a grave, but a burial plot. This repeated emphasis on buying a full piece of land in which to bury his wife, instead of just burying her among the dead of the Hittites, demonstrates a strong desire to remain separate and distinct. So while he is more than willing to follow the communal customs and protocols in buying the plot of land, the land purchase itself represents a certain degree of reluctance to actually join the community.

Bereishit 24 depicts the journey of Avraham’s servant to Haran to find a wife for Yitzhak. The servant’s journey is started by Avraham giving him detailed instructions, with the emphasis on the fact that the wife must not be from Canaan, going so far as to make him swear to this. “And I will make you swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and the God of the earth, that you shalt not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell. But you shalt go to my country, and to my kindred, and take a wife for my son, for Yitzhak” (24:3-4). This would seem to betray a strong desire to remain separate and apart from the Canaanites. But for all that, it is even more important that Yitzhak not be taken out of the land of Canaan. Despite the apparently undesirable nature of the Canaanite society, Avraham wants to make sure that his descendants remain in the midst of it. They came from a different land to a place where the society runs according to norms they could never accept[2]. They are supposed to come to the society as strangers, and then dwell there, despite the fact that it is strange to them.

The idea of being a stranger in a strange land is a trend for the next few generations of Israelite leadership. Yaakov spends 22 years growing and developing his family in the house of Lavan. Yosef is sold into slavery in Egypt where he becomes a leader of the entire society. Perhaps the ultimate manifestation of this is Moshe, who is raised in the Egyptian royal household, while  knowing that he is an Israelite (Shemot 2:8, 4:14), then he is exiled to Midian, where they identify him as an Egyptian (Shemot 2:19), and finally he returns to Egypt, to the house of Paroah, as the leader of soon-to-be liberated slaves. He is at all points in his life a stranger, as emphasized by the fact that he names his first son Gershom (גרשם), literally meaning “stranger there,” due to his having “been a stranger in a strange land” (Shemot 2:22). The only person whose sense of estrangement might be comparable is Rivkah. When she is taken from her family, from the land of her birth, she becomes a part of Avraham’s family, and must take up the family legacy of being part of a community they cannot fully accept. However, her estrangement starts much earlier. When the Torah introduces Rivkah, she is depicted as the very essence of altruistic dedication to the service of others. She spends hours filling up troughs full of water for the camels of a stranger who merely asked for a sip to drink (Bereishit 24:17-19). When he asks for a place to sleep, she offers him food for his camels as well (24:23-25). Her family, however, is only moved by the riches of the stranger (24:30-31), and seems to be totally self-serving, revealing that, growing up, Rivkah would have been a stranger in her own household. This would have made her perfect to marry Yitzhak, who was born in the Canaanite community, and thus would not possess the same degree of natural tension.

The question that then must be answered is, why is this tension important, or even at all desirable? The sensation of alienation Avraham and his family must have experienced living in Canaanite society must have been incredible, and not entirely pleasant. However, it has an important function. Avraham’s family was meant to be involved in the Canaanite society. Avraham helps fight a war (Bereishit 14) and he prays for the Sedom and the surrounding cities (Bereishit 18:16-33), despite their dubious moral character (Bereishit 13:13). Both Avraham and Yikzchak have repeated dealings with King Avimelekh of Gerar (Bereishit 20, 21:22-34). However, they are also a unique entity unto themselves, ‘א’s only covenantal partners in a land of people whose actions ‘א cannot tolerate (Bereishit 15:16). To remain unique is to be alienated. Losing this sense of alienation comes at the price of losing what makes one unique. This is all the more true in modern society, where we as jews are not in total opposition to society’s values. Much of modernity is incredibly valuable and important, and therefore it is that much harder to feel that we should be different, that we must remain separate. But if we as Jews do have something valuable to contribute to society, and we certainly do, letting go of that is a loss not just for us, but for society as a whole. While the pull of unity is great, it often comes at the price of the unique gifts of the individual, and in this it must be resisted. What we have to give is what makes us unique, and thus the way to stay unique is to truly believe in what we have to give. We must embrace what makes us different, not because we reject society, but because otherwise we would have cannot give to society. Embracing what makes us different not only makes us better, but betters society as well.

[1] Nahum Sarna, Understanding Genesis.

[2] The biblical picture of the Canaanites is one of absolute depravity, as per Bereishit 15:16, Vayikra 18:3, etc.

Parashat Shoftim 5774 – On National Unity and Self-Criticism

וּבִעַרְתָּ הָרָע מִקִּרְבֶּךָ

 

Parashat Shoftim begins by introducing the leadership of the judges and officers of the Nation of Israel (Devarim 16:18). The rest of the parashah is spent discussing various legal situations, when it is appropriate to go to which leaders, such as the King, whose position and laws are also introduced (17:14-20). The first case introduced is the case of an idolater found “in the midst of” the people, who is to be executed if his transgression is attested to by at least two witnesses (17:2-7). This case is closed by a final condition of the execution, namely, that it has to be initiated by the witnesses. “The hand of the witnesses shall be upon him first to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people” (17:7). This condition seems a bit odd. The witnesses just did a favor, of sorts, for society by enabling the functioning of the judicial system, and suddenly they are saddled with additional, not to mention unpleasant, responsibilities. A similar situation is found in 13:7-12, where a person’s closest companion suddenly attempts to draw them into idolatry, and not only do they have to ensure that the person is killed, but they have to strike first. “For you shall surely kill him; your hand shall be upon him first to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people” (13:10). Both of these oddities, however, can be explained by taking a look at some larger linguistic phenomenon, and the ideas they introduce, throughout the laws of Parashat Shoftim and Sefer Devarim.

This is perhaps best demonstrated by the archetypical legal case, introduced almost immediately after the command to appoint officers and judges in 16:18.

If there is found in your midst, within any of your gates which the Lord your God gave you, a man or woman that does that which is evil in the sight of the Lord your God… and it is told to you, and you hear it, then you shall inquire diligently, and, behold, if it is true, and the matter is certain that such abomination was done in Israel; then you shall bring forth that man or that woman, who has done this evil thing, to your gates and you shall stone them with stones, the man or the woman, that they die. By the mouth of two witnesses, or three witnesses, shall he that is to die be put to death; at the mouth of one witness he shall not be put to death. The hand of the witnesses shall be upon him first to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people, and you shall burn the evil from your midst. (17:2-7)

The first thing that’s notable here is that in contrast to the discussion of the judicial system as it is described in Shemot 19, the case does not begin with the bringing of a query before the judge, but with a wrongdoer that is “found” in the midst of the people. Only when the case cannot be solved is it taken to higher authorities to adjudicate (17:8-13). This is connected to one of the unique features of Sefer Devarim’s style, the emphasis on things happening “בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ,”“in your gates.” The word “שְׁעָרֶיךָ” shows up exactly one time in the Torah outside of Sefer Devarim, in Shemot 20:10, whereas in Sefer Devarim alone it shows up a grand total of twenty-seven times. The laws of Sefer Devarim put a lot of emphasis on the way things will occur at the various Israelite towns and cities throughout the Land of Israel. This is due to the focus on centralization that simultaneously appears in the laws of Sefer Devarim, as shown by the predominance of the phrase “הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְ׳הוָה,” “the place that ‘א will choose.” All of the proper judicial and religious institutions are located at one central location, which is something that works fine when you’re traveling in the desert, but not when you’re scattered in permanent cities throughout the Land of Israel. Thus Sefer Devarim indicates that the legal system, rather than being a matter of top-down enforcement, is something that has to come from the people. The people are responsible for making sure that the laws are enforced and that the system works.

Intimately related to this is the way that many of the legal cases of Sefer Devarim conclude with the rather unique phrase, “וּבִעַרְתָּ הָרָע מִקִּרְבֶּךָ,” “And you shall burn the evil from your midst.” In the basic legal case from 17:2-7, this phrase appears at the very end of the passage, but it also referenced at the very beginning with the phrase, “כִּי-יִמָּצֵא בְקִרְבְּךָ,” “If there is found in your midst.” Barring a few slight differences, the phrase “וּבִעַרְתָּ הָרָע מִקִּרְבֶּךָ” appears 10 times throughout chapters 13-24 of Sefer Devarim, in a variety of legal contexts, from idolatry (13:6) to the judicial process (17:12; 19:18) to kidnapping (24:7). Bnei Yisrael are one nation with one “midst,” and where evil is allowed to fester, the nation rots from within. The purpose of the judicial system is maintaining the legal and moral uprightness of the Nation of Israel[1]. Justice isn’t about ‘א, it’s about national integrity. Part of maintaining an upright and lawful nation is making sure that evil is not allowed to fester and grow within the heart of the society.Caring for the Nation of Israel is not a task relegated to it’s leaders. The unity of the nation that requires each citizen to be responsible for the whole. Therefore, when a person is confronted with such evil, they cannot simply ignore it, but instead they must stand up and confront it, as each person is responsible for this. It is this incredible responsibility that is the basis for the law of “The hand of the witnesses shall be upon him first to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people” (17:7). When a person “finds” (17:2) evil in the midst of the nation, they are responsible for ensuring it is removed.

It is unfortunately clear that the Jewish People enjoy no innate moral superiority. Our communities certainly have our share of issues. This doesn’t make us bad, it just makes us human. The responsibility is on us however, to stand up for how great our society can be. Achdut and Ahavat Yisrael are not reasons to shy away from being self-critical as a nation, they are reasons to embrace being self-critical. In Sefer Devarim the responsibility of the individual is emphasized due to the physical remoteness of the Judicial system; In our times, we don’t even have a proper Judicial system to be distant from[2]. Our Ahavat Yisrael, our sense of national unity, should motivate us to try and drive the Nation of Israel to new heights of morality, not to withhold our critiques. We are our brothers’ keepers, and we all bear a responsibility for the nation. Simultaneously, any self-critiques of the Nation of Israel must be motivated by a sense of unity and love. We are our brother’s keeper exactly because they are our brothers. Driving Bnei Yisrael to be the best can be is a communal act of love. The prophets were perhaps the best example of an authority attempting to improve the moral nature of Israel and, on the whole, they failed dramatically. Despite the public recriminations of the prophets, Bnei Yisrael did not repent. Top-down enforcement has never effected great change in Israel; It is average people creating a moral atmosphere in their daily lives that awakens the heart of the nation. If we want to truly be a Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation (Shemot 19:6), we have to do our part to make sure that the nation lives up to the moral and legal requirements of ‘א’s Covenant.

 

[1] Notably, when the judges and officers are appointed (16:18-20) in this context, the reason given for avoiding bribery is that it corrupts the wise and the sagely, as opposed to at the beginning of Sefer Devarim where the reason is that Justice belongs to ‘א, and so to corrupt it is to corrupt that which is His (1:17).

[2] This is in terms of a Bet Din system, of which we have a facsimile today, but we lack authentic judicial leadership. Secular courts are a separate issue.

Yom Yerushalayim 5774 – The Place that Dovid had Designated: Unity and Responsibility

אֲשֶׁר הֵכִין בִּמְקוֹם דָּוִיד

 

The picture of Jerusalem in Tanakh is a complex one. Beyond the fact that its name is not mentioned until Sefer Yehoshua (in the Torah it’s just called “the place that ‘א will choose”[1]), it is also the city whose destruction is probably most often prophesied. And yet it is ‘א’s City, which Yeshayahu depicts as the center of a new world-order based on the knowledge of ‘א. This complexity becomes clearer when one takes a look at the origins of the city as depicted in Tanakh. The conquest of Jerusalem is described multiple times, in the books of Yehoshua, Shoftim, and Shmuel. A closer analysis of these descriptions, and the interplay between them, demonstrates that Jerusalem’s complexity is a feature which goes back to its very origin.

The 15th chapter of Sefer Yehoshua depicts the conquest of the borders and cities of the territory given to the tribe of Yehudah, with a brief interlude detailing the experiences of Caleb Ben Yephuneh and Otniel Ben Knaz (Yehoshua 15:13-19). Verse 63, the last line in the chapter, describes Yehuda’s attempt to conquer Jesrusalem. “ And as for the Jebusites, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the children of Yehudah could not drive them out; but the Jebusites dwelt with the children of Yehudah in Jerusalem until this day.”[2] This is not a promising start to the city, but its real importance comes in its contrast to the description found in the first chapter of Sefer Shoftim.

The first chapter of Sefer Shoftim both agrees and disagrees with Yehoshua 15.[3] Verse 8 describes the Tribe of Yehuda conquering the city. “And the children of Yehudah fought against Jerusalem, and took it, and smote it with the edge of the sword, and set the city on fire.” This fits with the verse from Yehoshua 15 only in the broadest sense. It completely lacks the sense of difficulty in conquering the city expressed in Sefer Yehoshua. However, Verse 21 reads almost exactly the same as Yehoshua 15:63, with the notable exception of Yehudah being replaced by Binyamin. “And the children of Binyamin did not drive out the Jebusites that inhabited Jerusalem; but the Jebusites dwelt with the children of Binyamin in Jerusalem until this day.” This is an outright contradiction to both the verse in Yehoshua 15 and verse 8 in this very same chapter of Shoftim, which describe Yehudah, not Binyamin, conquering Jerusalem.

There are various ways to resolve this contradiction. Professor Elitsur, in the Da’at Mikra Commentary on Sefer Shoftim, suggests that some of the verses refer to the city of Jerusalem itself, while some of them refer only to the area surrounding the city. According to this conception, Yehoshua 15:63 is referring to Yehudah conquering the land around the city, while Shoftim 1:21 refers to Binyamin conquering the city itself. Shoftim 1:5 speaks of the city itself, but not of Yehuda conquering it, only burning it. In the Daat Mikra Commentary to Sefer Shemuel, Professor Kiel suggests that the area of Jerusalem can be divided into two parts: the City of David, down in the valley, and the area of the Old City and Har Tsion, on the hill above. Thus he says that Binyamin conquered the City of David and Yehudah conquered the Old City and Har Tsion. These solutions each have their own pros and cons, but they do resolve the contradiction. They do not, however, answer the question of why it was written in this manner.

No matter which method one uses for resolving the contradiction, the glaring question remains: Why was the conquering of Jerusalem written in such a confusing manner? Either of the above solutions could have been written much more plainly, without any of the confusion and contradiction. Yehoshua 15:63 and Shoftim 1:21 use exactly the same words, but with a different name for the conquering tribe. However, this parallel is so exact as to imply conscious intent, which warrants assuming a greater degree of intent. Once the paralleling in the verses is recognized, there is a greater intent understood, that of specifically comlpicating the story of Jerusalem. Jerusalem does not belong to any one tribe, but to all of them. While it cannot physically be in the land of all of the tribes at once, it is right on the border of the lands of Yehudah and Binyamin. Therefore, its conquest is one which cannot be attributed to any one tribe.

It is important to note that at the time of Sefer Shoftim Jerusalem was not yet the official capital of Israel. Then it was just a city with a complex ownership situation. It didn’t become the capital of Israel until Dovid took it in Shemuel Bet 5:4-10.

David was thirty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned forty years. In Hebron he reigned over Judah seven years and six months; and in Jerusalem he reigned thirty and three years over all Israel and Judah. And the king and his men went to Jerusalem against the Jebusites, the inhabitants of the land, who spoke unto David, saying: ‘Unless you take away the blind and the lame, thou shalt not come in hither’; thinking: ‘David cannot come in hither.’ Nevertheless David took the stronghold of Zion; the same is the city of David. And David said on that day: ‘Whoever smites the Jebusites, and gets up to the water channel, and [takes away] the lame and the blind, that are hateful of David–.’ Therefore they say: ‘There are the blind and the lame; he cannot come into the house.’ And David dwelt in the stronghold, and called it the city of David. And David built round about from Millo and inward. And David waxed greater and greater; for the LORD, the God of hosts, was with him.

 

This depiction, mirrored in Divrei HaYamim Alef 11:4-9, is most notable for its total lack of a mention of ‘א. When it comes to choosing and taking the city that will be the seat of Israel’s Kingship, theoretically until the end of time, the choice is not made by ‘א, but by David. Similarly, when the site of the Bet HaMikdash is chosen (Shemuel Bet 24:17-25), it is chosen by David, not ‘א, as is made clear by Divrei HaYamim Bet 3:1. “Then Solomon began to build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem in mount Moriah, where [the Lord] appeared to his father David; At the place which David had designated, at the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite.” Once again, the choice is made not by ‘א, but by David.

Jerusalem has two different aspects: its function in terms of the nation and its function in terms of ‘א, and neither of which is as we would expect. While we normally expect a city to fall under one domain, Jerusalem falls under two, and is further considered to not really be their property anyway, rather being a place for all the tribes. It’s not so much a city as a national center. Meanwhile, one would expect the site of national encounter with ‘א to be at a place of His choosing, not some place chosen by Man. And yet, David’s choice designated not just the city but also the very place where ‘א would choose to make his name dwell. Both of these factors lead directly to Jerusalem as a city that could be the center of the universal service of ‘א, and also has its destruction prophesied with terrifying regularity. The city is founded on the unity of diverse groups of people and it is either good or bad based on their choices. Jerusalem represents all the good that Bnei Yisrael can possibly achieve when we are united, but also all the bad we can fall into when we are not. It is on us, not ‘א, to make sure that the city and the nation become all that they can be, and that they lead the rest of the world in living up to all the potential that ‘א has given us.

“And many peoples shall go and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the Mount of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that He may instruct us in His ways, and we will walk in His paths.’ For Law shall go forth from Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” (Yeshayahu 2:3)

[1] Devarim 12:5, 11, 18, 21, 26, and others.

[2] Translations from www.mechon-mamre.org, with some emendations for clarity.

[3] The discussion of the interplay of the verses form Shoftim 1 and Yehoshua 15 and the conclusion drawn from it are based on a class from Rav Amnon Bazak’s year-long “Studies in Sefer Shotfim” (HEB) course, given at Mikhlelet Herzog.